A top adviser to Republican presidential contender John McCain suggested recently that a terrorist attack on the U.S. would work to the Arizona senator's advantage in November. But new data in a USA Today/Gallup survey demonstrates that the political landscape has changed radically since the last election, when Republicans used the issue of national security to their advantage.
As consumer confidence continues to sink to historic lows, domestic issues such as the economy and energy are clearly taking precedence in voters' minds. And, ominously for McCain, Democratic counterpart Barack Obama seems to be building more trust with voters in his ability to handle these top priorities.
When asked what issues are most important to them in assessing this year's candidates, respondents ranked energy (including gas prices) and the economy as their primary concerns; 51 percent reported that energy is "extremely important" to them, while 49 percent said the same of the economy. The "situation in Iraq" came in third at 44 percent. Two issues that voters favored in their decision-making process in 2004 -- terrorism and moral values -- lagged at 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
Obama was widely judged to be better suited than McCain to tackle the problems of greatest concern to voters. Fifty-one percent of respondents told USA Today/Gallup that the Illinois senator would do a better job on health care, compared with 26 percent for McCain, while Obama held a 48-32 advantage on the economy and a 47-28 lead on energy. The only policy area in which McCain held a significant edge was terrorism; voters gave the Arizona senator a 52-33 advantage on confronting terrorist threats. On the top foreign policy matter, Iraq, voters considered Obama and McCain equal, with 43 percent citing each as best equipped to handle the war.
Moreover, Obama outperformed McCain on a wide range of qualities usually considered important when choosing a leader. Fifty-four percent of voters said Obama better understands the problems Americans are facing, compared with 29 percent for McCain. Obama bested the Arizona senator by 22 percentage points on "car[ing] about the needs of people like you," 16 points on being an independent thinker, 14 points on being willing to take on special interests and 13 points on being able and willing to work in a bipartisan manner. The only leadership measure on which McCain outstripped Obama was strength and decisiveness; the Arizona senator garnered 46 percent, compared with 40 percent for Obama.
McCain faces yet another disadvantage: In a year when voters are clamoring for change, a 49 percent plurality is "very concerned" that the presumptive Republican nominee would prove too similar to President Bush.
The good news for McCain in this survey may be that 4 in 10 voters doubt Obama's ability to be commander in chief, while an overwhelming 8 in 10 trust the Arizona senator to handle those responsibilities. And when it comes to making decisions about sending troops into combat, a 53 percent majority would rather turn to McCain, compared with 40 percent for Obama.
But when USA Today/Gallup pollsters asked respondents whether they would rather vote for a presidential candidate whose "greatest strength" was fixing the economy or protecting the country from terrorism, a 56 percent majority favored economics over security.
The Energy Options Voters Are Plugging
Amid vows by McCain and Obama to curb skyrocketing gas prices, a new Fox News poll [PDF] taps into which solutions -- from increased offshore drilling to more nuclear power plants -- Americans favor for reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil.
More than three-quarters of respondents said they support increased drilling for oil, but Democrats and Republicans differ on where that drilling should occur. About 65 percent of GOP respondents said they support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but only 45 percent of Democrats agreed. Consensus is closer on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which 85 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats said they support. Overall, voter sentiment has shifted toward more drilling in both regions since Fox News asked the same question in March of 2006. There was a 9-percentage-point leap for the Gulf of Mexico and a 5-point jump for the more controversial ANWR.
Americans are more hesitant to embrace McCain's call to build more nuclear power plants, yet this, too, has seen an increase. Fewer than half of Democrats said they support this option, but almost six in 10 GOP respondents said they do. Overall, 51 percent of respondents were in favor of building more nuclear power plants, up from 47 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in April of 2002.
Despite Americans' growing acceptance of formerly taboo options such as drilling in ANWR, the routes they're not willing to take are the ones that involve them most directly. Only three in 10 said oil and gas rationing would be a good solution, and only 13 percent approved of raising the federal gasoline tax.